The Politics of K-12 Math and Academic Rigor

The Economist:

Look around the business world and two things stand out: the modern economy places an enormous premium on brainpower; and there is not enough to go round.
But education inevitably matters most. How can India talk about its IT economy lifting the country out of poverty when 40% of its population cannot read? [MMSD’s 10th Grade Reading Data] As for the richer world, it is hard to say which throw more talent away—America’s dire public schools or Europe’s dire universities. Both suffer from too little competition and what George Bush has called “the soft bigotry of low expectations”.

Thursday’s meeting between Madison School Superintendent Art Rainwater, the MMSD’s Brian Sniff and the UW Math department included two interesting guests: UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley [useful math links via the Chancellor’s website] and the Dean of the UW-Madison Education School. Wiley and the Ed School Dean’s attendance reflects the political nature of K-12 curriculum, particularly math. I’m glad Chancellor Wiley took time from his busy schedule to attend and look forward to his support for substantial improvements in our local math program.

Citizen agitation regarding local use of “fuzzy math” has been underway for some time. Melania Alvarez’s April, 2004 School Board campaign was based on her UW-Madison work, where she evaluated math capabilities of incoming freshman. A parent, Melania also tutored Math at Thoreau Elementary School, so she “could see both ends”. Melania discussed these campaign issues early in 2004:

  • The Madison School District’s full speed ahead implementation of Discovery Math in Elementary School, Connected Math in Middle School and Core Plus in High School despite the dismantling of these programs in Minnesota and California along with extensive local teacher and parent concerns.
  • Her discussions with MMSD Administration over their plans for these “fuzzy math” programs:

    “What happened also is I went and I talked, three years ago [2001], I went and I talked to people at the Madison Metropolitan School District and I asked them if they were trying to implement Discovery, if they were going to do, you know, Connected Math for everybody, and they told me that that was not what they were going to do. And I don’t know if that parents go . . . parents go there, they discuss, they talk with people, they will assure you you’re out there thinking that, you know, that they told you truth, and then come find later on that that’s not the case.”

    – shades Garelick’s words.

  • The role of the School Board in setting and overseeing K-12 curriculum:

    And what happens is that one of the main jobs of the School Board is to choose curriculums, set curriculums, and the implementation of those curriculums. And, unfortunately, they have not been doing that in the last year(s).

    And, of course, then the interest of the few group of educators who want to leave their mark in the world with their own system, this is the way you become famous for life. If your system, if your methodology work, then that’s it, you know, you’re remembered for generations, yeah, and so that is, so this, you know, it’s like a religion, something like that.

    And so what happens is that we have to really look at all the possibilities out there, which are being looked at. Like I said, in 19, in late ‘90s, when these curriculums were starting to be implemented, we already knew that these curriculums were controversial and they were failing. And so I am up to date to all those things.

  • Transcript | Video Interview.

I’ve heard from a number of teachers over the years who have expressed great concerns over the “downtown” math program, or “math police”.
Specifically, a group of West High’s math teachers wrote a letter to Isthmus:

At West, to address the problems of inadequate preparation, we offer an extra hour of math per day in a class called Algebra Extended. There are 11 sections of this class. This is how more kids “complete ninth grade math in the ninth grade,” not because of some touted “success” of the feeder programs in middle school.
As a matter of fact, the algebra skills and problem-solving skills of my geometry students have been generally worse every year, and my experience is echoed by many of my colleagues who teach classes beyond geometry. The kids are frustrated and angry as well, feeling, rightfully so, that it’s not their fault.

What is the Truth?

One of the challenges parents face when considering these issues is to slog through the numerous studies, rhetoric and financial interests related to curriculum. For example Mark Clayton wrote an article about the Department of Education’s math curriculum review process:

Core-Plus was one of the best of the programs reviewed, panel members say. But studies of its effectiveness were co-authored by Harold Schoen, a University of Iowa professor.
Dr. Schoen, who is listed as a co-director of the program, admits he is in line to receive royalties from the sales of Core-Plus textbooks. His studies, he says, are not motivated by the prospect of royalties, of which he has received little.
But some critics have concerns. “You simply cannot have one of your principal investigators [in a research project] also be the outside evaluator,” says R. James Milgram, a Stanford University mathematician and critic.

Click for more on the texts.

A quick look at the size of the Connected Math textbooks compared to the equivalent Singapore Math course materials illustrates the publisher and author interests in selling these large volumes irrespective of curriculum quality and rigor (not to mention the much larger potential for errors or the lost trees….).

Who is Responsible for Curriculum Decisions?

Locally, the Madison School Board, certainly the majority of the Board has generally been unwilling to wade into the curriculum oversight waters. One of the arguments put forth is that the Administration takes care of that, and they are the “experts”. Wisconsin law says otherwise; School Boards are legally responsible for curriculum:

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) 8.01 & Parent Barb Schrank:

Each school district board shall develop, adopt and implement a written school district curriculum plan which includes the following: a. A kindergarten through grade 12 sequential curriculum plan in each of the following subject areas: reading, language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, health, computer literacy, environmental education, physical education, art and music.

What can Parents/Citizens do?

  • Run for School Board. Three seats will be contested in April, 2007. Those positions are currently held by Johnny Winston, Jr., Shwaw Vang and Ruth Robarts (Ruth announced last spring that she would not seek re-election).
  • Send an email ( or write a letter to the Madison School Board. Mention the board’s legal curriculum responsibilities and urge them to publish a review of the current K-12 curriculum with input from Administration, Parents, Teachers and the UW Math Department. In other words, make sure that those critical of the current approach have a substantive say.
  • Ask that the District’s K-12 math curriculum materials (teacher and student) and references be published online (html format) in an easy to review manner. This information should be updated annually.
  • Advocate for school-based budgeting (a number of districts do this) and local decision making. Teachers should receive the information and tools necessary to meet the needs of all students. MMSD Teacher Barb Williams reflected on this issue in a letter to Isthmus.
  • Become active in your local PTO, or form a Math Support Group. Thoreau Elementary school has such a group for years. Math was the subject of two Thoreau PTO meetings this year. Following are my notes from the April, 2006 meeting:

    The MMSD’s Carrie Valentine gave a presentation on how the current K-5 math curriculum was developed and also displayed the new teacher guides “Learning Mathematics in the Primary Grades”. Evidently this will be distributed to principals next week.
    There were a number of useful questions, including those from a Thoreau teacher who has used Singapore Math the past few years (Barb Williams).
    The district has received a “diversity in mathematics grant”.
    The District requires (or is it the state?) that students have 1 hour of math learning per day.
    The two curriculums that they use are Growing with Math and Math Expressions.
    Barb Williams mentioned that they (her class at Thoreau) were selected to pilot Singapore math (actually a “toe dip” according to the mmsd), yet when she and her students arrived last fall (09/2005), there were no materials.
    Singapore Math evidently has been suggested as a supplement in the new teacher materials.
    One parent asked if Singapore math can be used as a core? Carrie’s response was that they did not select it because there was (has now been rectified, evidently) very little teacher training available for it. Another parent followed up and asked if the PTO could help fund teacher training in Singapore Math.
    Another parent mentioned that Singapore has differentiation materials built in, unlike everyday math which is “so shallow” that teachers end up spending lots of free time seeking and copying materials for various students.
    A parent asked if the mmsd is tracking students who have taken Singapore math as they move forward? “No.”
    A parent asked if teachers could share their method and curriculum with parents. She said it would be very helpful to know how they can help. She followed up and said the methods and curriculum change from year to year so it is hard to keep track of what’s happening.

  • Write a comment relating your K-12 math experiences on this post below.

Links & Notes:

  • The Economist – The Battle for Brainpower:

    IN A speech at Harvard University in 1943 Winston Churchill observed that “the empires of the future will be empires of the mind.” He might have added that the battles of the future will be battles for talent. To be sure, the old battles for natural resources are still with us. But they are being supplemented by new ones for talent—not just among companies (which are competing for “human resources”) but also among countries (which fret about the “balance of brains” as well as the “balance of power”)

  • Celeste Roberts on Connected Math:

    The problems with CMP go far beyond failing to reach parents. One big problem is that the edifice of mathematics is so huge. Think of how long it took mathematicians to discover all of it. When one tries to use the discovery paradigm as the sole model for math lessons, all of the time available is spent in discovery process of basic concepts. There isn’t time for more than a cursory look at any topic. There isn’t any work on hard problems related to basic concepts. There isn’t time to master computational aspects of basic concepts. Everyone learns 1/2 + 1/4, but no one learns how to find the least common denominator of 1/14 and 1/35. The people who promote a constructivist approach to math set up a false dichotomy between traditional math which teaches one to memorize formulas and tables of computations, and discovery math which teaches one to really understand how math works. I actually had a TAG resource teacher say this to me very patronizingly. “We don’t teach math anymore the way that YOU learned it. Now children really understand math when they learn it.” Excuse me, but traditional math was never like that. Tradtional math presents concepts AND teaches understanding of concepts. One learns formulas AND why they work. One also does large numbers of progressively more difficult computations to become skilled at them. The problem with traditional math is that large numbers of students don’t understand the concepts as presented and try to get by with memorizing and manipulating formulas which they don’t understand. They also don’t master the computational aspects and try to make up for this deficit by using calculators inappropriately.

  • State Educators Called Dinosaurs:

    Business and technology change rapidly. Education often changes slowly. Nearly 200 people from the southern Wisconsin business and education sectors gathered Thursday to hear an education expert talk about ways of helping education catch up.
    Willard Daggett, president and founder of the International Center for Leadership in Education in Rexford, N.Y., was the keynote presenter at a business education conference at the Comfort Inn. He introduced examples of emerging technology and noted that the job market is changing, resulting in fewer low-skill jobs and more high-technology positions.
    Daggett offered an especially critical look at education in Wisconsin. “You look more like 1970,” he said, comparing state educators to “curators preserving a museum.”

  • Promises Betrayed on the MMSD’s changing curriculum.
  • Richard Askey on MMSD 8th grade math performance.
  • Lee Sensenbrenner on Connected Math.
  • 35 Members of the UW Math Department (out of 47) wrote a letter expressing concern regarding the MMSD’s criteria for a Math Coordinator. Superintendent Art Rainwater’s reply.
  • Art Rainwater has been very active in the local Board scene (which is commendable, though I wonder if it inhibits some of the local K-12 discussion). He serves on the Board of the United Way, the Foundation for Madison Public Schools, The Minority Student Achievement Network The Collaboration Council and was formerly on SCALE’s Advisory Board (with Terry Millar, a UW professor who participated in the recent Math Forum, supporting the Districts’ program).
  • NCTM’s “Focal Points” tries to bring coherence to a national school math problem of many different State Standards. To a reasonable extent, this was influenced by successful Asian curricula, which place a greater focus on what is to be learned each year, expect students to have learned this material, and go on to other topics the next year. There is a greater emphasis on getting arithmetic solid than we have had, and this is included in “Focal Points”.
  • William Reese via Susan Troller:

    “I suspect Madison can be seen as a microcosm of what is going on throughout the rest of the country,” Reese said in a recent interview in his book-lined Bascom Hill office. “There are many extraordinarily well educated people here, and they have very high expectations of what kind of education their children are receiving.”

  • Barry Garelick:

    It was a textbook case on how to adopt substandard math textbooks. On June 15, 2005, the Washington, DC School Board voted to adopt Everyday Mathematics (EM) for elementary schools and Connected Math Program (CMP) for middle schools. The action was a photocopy of actions taken by other school boards across the country adoptions that have been occurring on a disturbingly regular basis for the past decade and a half.

    What the DCPS Board did and said on June 15 was so similar to what other school boards have done, one would think that they all operate from the same scripts:

    • A script on how to adopt math textbooks that require extensive teacher training and whose success is most likely attributable to the flurry of tutoring, enrollments in learning centers, or supplemental materials teachers must use if their students are to learn any math that will be of use.
    • A script on how to disparage testimony from mathematicians and knowledgeable parents, and give credibility only to their own witnesses.
    • A script on how to have an independent consultant summarize the results of the recommendations for textbook evaluations made by a committee hand picked by the school board.

    Like any sleight of hand, once you know the tricks, these techniques are not subtle.
    Unfortunately, many people fall prey to the illusions used to convey objectivity and professionalism in the same way Las Vegas audiences believe David Copperfield can make an automobile onstage disappear.

    Via Joanne.

Judy Newman’s recent article “Ring of Hire: Emergence of High-Tech Firms Nets Jobs – and Prestige – for Madison” notes the growth of tech employment in Dane County – echoing The Economist.

Obviously, getting math right for our future generations is critical to our social (tax base) and economic well being. An MMSD Administrator mentioned to me that they recognize the problem but believe it will take a long time to fix. It appears we have a way to go.